Paula Cooper, 43, (Pictured above) was convicted in the 1985 murder of Ruth Pelke, who was found stabbed 33 times across her chest as part of a home invasion. Cooper will be released today after her death penalty punishment nearly 30 years ago raised international attention.
Cooper, of Gary Ind., was 15 when she and three other teenage girls showed up at Ruth Pelke’s house on May 14, 1985, with plans of robbing the 78-year-old Bible school teacher. Pelke (in the photo below), let Cooper and two of the teen’s companions into her Gary home after they told her they were interested in Bible lessons.
The girls were on their lunch break from high school.
As the fourth teen waited outside as a lookout, Cooper stabbed Pelke 33 times with a 12-inch butcher knife across her chest. Then she and the other girls ransacked the house.
Authorities said Pelke was praying the Lord’s Prayer while she was being brutally murdered. The four girls fled with the woman’s car and $10.
Cooper’s three accomplices were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 25 to 60 years. But Cooper, who confessed to Pelke’s slaying, was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. At the time — in 1986 — she was the youngest death row inmate in the U.S.
Some people believed Cooper deserved to die, but the punishment enraged human rights activists and death penalty opponents around the world, including those who viewed the teen as a victim of a racist criminal justice system.
Pope John Paul II urged that Cooper be granted clemency in 1987, and in 1988 a priest brought a petition to Indianapolis with more than 2 million signatures protesting Cooper’s sentence.
The Indiana Supreme Court set Cooper’s death sentence aside in 1988 and ordered her to serve 60 years in prison instead.
Cooper told The Star newspaper in a jailhouse interview in 2004 that she was on the straight and narrow.
“Everybody has a responsibility to do right or wrong, and if you do wrong, you should be punished,” she said. “Rehabilitation comes from you. If you’re not ready to be rehabilitated, you won’t be.”